To Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, participating in the first 18 days of protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square last year was like living a dream of equality and harmony between men and women, religious and secular.
Soueif, who does not cover her hair with the headscarf worn by conservative Muslims, recalled men in Tahrir as being “chivalrous, helpful. You could smoke, sit together, whatever headgear you were wearing.”
But on March 9, the day after a women's rights protest was disrupted by angry men, the army violently cleared a rally in Tahrir Square and seven women who were arrested said they were subjected to a forcible, invasive “virginity test.” Victim Samira Ibrahim, 25, said it amounted to a military doctor sticking his hand into her “chastity” for five minutes.
Then in December, the military government's police beat women protesters, including some in religious garb, in clashes that left 14 people dead and hundreds wounded. The footage of soldiers stripping, beating and kicking one woman protester triggered international outrage when it was broadcast around the world.
Now, after elections in January gave Islamist parties, led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), a majority of the seats in Egypt's parliament, Soueif's dream of an egalitarian utopia between the sexes has faded away for some women. Abeda Naguib, 35, a filmmaker who was active in the protests, is thinking of leaving the country.
“As a woman and an artist, I'm scared,” she says. “We are expecting them [the Muslim Brotherhood] to make women put on the veil. It's definitely going to be less freedom. The Brotherhood has sold out the revolution.”
Before the Tahrir protests led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt had passed some of the Middle East's most progressive divorce laws. In 2000, Egyptian women gained the right to a divorce without a husband's consent or proof of maltreatment.
Since Mubarak's fall, however, some Freedom and Justice members have vowed to revoke those reforms. And although women's groups had helped to get the divorce reforms through parliament before the revolution, the groups now seem “very disorganized and have different agendas,” says Nadia Sonneveld, author of a forthcoming book on Egypt's divorce law.
During the Arab Spring, “Despite women joining these protests and being very active, it was not necessarily as women's rights activists,” adds Elena Zacharenko, a Middle East expert in Amnesty International's Brussels office. Women's rights “were downplayed. When they were mentioned, they were painted as a Western influence imposed from the outside world.”
Feminists are also disappointed that in Egypt, the largest Arab Spring country, women won barely 2 percent of the new parliament's seats, far less than the 12 percent mandated during the 2010 election under the Mubarak regime. By comparison, Morocco, where religious parties won a landslide victory, now has a parliament that is 17 percent female, while Tunisia elected women candidates to 28 percent of its parliamentary seats — though still short of its 50 percent quota.
Hania Sholkamy, an anthropologist at the American University in Cairo, blames the lack of female representation in Egypt's Parliament on the failure of women's rights groups to unite around any candidates.
Egyptian women have been at the forefront of that country's Arab Spring protests. These women were demonstrating in Cairo on March 16, 2012, in support of Samira Ibrahim, who has sued an army doctor for allegedly conducting forced “virginity tests” on female protesters. He was acquitted on March 10, sparking outrage among Egyptian women. (AFP/Getty Images/Mohammed Hossan)
“State-sponsored feminism … harmed the popular perception of women's rights,” Sholkamy writes, referring to Mubarak's gender quota, widely viewed as a way for the authoritarian leader to pack parliament with his supporters. “The state imposed an unpopular quota for women and implemented it in the most discredited and corrupt elections in Egyptian history.”
It remains unclear what the Muslim Brotherhood will try to do regarding women's legal status. Lawmakers from the Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafi parties voted on March 24 to give Islamists an overwhelming majority on the panel that will write the new constitution. Liberal lawmakers criticized the panel for excluding women and Christians.
To date, the Brotherhood's official statements have tended to be more moderate than those of some of its most prominent members. The group's English-language website speaks often of women while its Arabic websites almost never mention them.
Such two-facedness is also a concern in Tunisia. During its October election campaign, the Islamist Al-Nahda party was careful not to state its position on the issue of women's rights, says Maaike Voorhoeve, a University of Amsterdam researcher studying Tunisian politics. Yet after Al-Nahda took the lead, party leader Rachid Ghannouchi declared polygamy was “possible.”
“So everyone who was already afraid something like this would happen saw this as some kind of bad omen that Al-Nahda will go even further,” says Voorhoeve, speaking by telephone from Tunisia, which until now has enjoyed liberal family laws.
However, the new constitution being drafted in Tunisia will not call for Sharia to be the source of all legislation, Al-Nahda announced on March 26, despite calls from extremist Salafis to implement Sharia.
In Libya, women had triggered a revolution on Feb. 15, 2011, when the mothers, sisters and widows of prisoners killed in a 1996 massacre staged street demonstrations in Benghazi to protest the arrest of their lawyer.
But after the ensuing civil war there, interim leader Mustafa Abdel-Jalil shocked the West when he declared in October that Libya would be governed by Islamic law, allowing polygamy, which is legal now only if the first wife consents. Still, “there's no appetite for an extreme law of Sharia in Libya,” says BBC Libya reporter Rana Jawad, author of Tripoli Witness, a new book about the revolution.
The transitional Libyan government also decided months ago not to implement a quota that sets aside 10 percent of parliamentary seats for women in upcoming elections, even though it had originally promised to abide by the quota. Women “are shocked to discover that there is now no quota at all, leaving them at even greater risk of exclusion,” according to the women's advocacy group Women 4 Libya, which had said the 10 percent quota was paltry.
“This revolution was started by women. They captured the imagination of everyone, including sons and husbands,” Libyan writer Faraj Najem said recently. Now, “they're taking a passenger seat. We need them to play a pivotal role.”
— Sarah Glazer